Since the days of perestroika, Russia has sought knowledge about federalism based on the experiences of Europe and the United States. But, today, comparisons between Russia and the West may no longer be valid. Many Russian scholars have been looking for reference points outside the realm of the West, as revealed at a recent conference at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow (“Toward a New Model of Russian Federalism”). Eminent foreign scholars who attended, such as Catherine Stoner-Weiss and David Cameron, also queried whether Western concepts of federalism are applicable for Russia. One participant pointed to Malaysia as a feasible model for Russia:
- Territorial dispersion of power is not a danger for the ruling authoritarian regime but actually a condition of its stability over the past half-century.
- Malaysia has its own “Kaliningrads” (small swathes of land detached from the mainland).
- The political opposition has been skillfully incorporated into the system of governance, which enhances the regime’s legitimacy.
- States such as Malaysia pose interesting challenges to the domination of Western concepts of federalism, which accentuates its presumably inevitable nexus with democracy.
Yet the hegemonic academic and largely Western-centric discourse on regionalism and federalism is also challenged by voices claiming radical specificity and singularity of ethnic experiences. The North Caucasus region is a good example here. According to one participant: due to the area’s particular indigenous and ethnic make-up, local society in the Caucasus cannot be properly portrayed by traditional Western academic fields and thus requires other research methods and “schools of thought.”
Grigory Shvedov (of the “Kavkaz Uzel” website) argued that most of the features of Canadian federalism (like bargains between federal and regional authorities, distribution of public offices with due account to ethnic factors, competition between territories for investment resources, etc.) are part-and-parcel of governance in the North Caucasus (even though a major difference is the corruption, non-transparency, and rampant violence in the Caucasus). Arguably, some federal mechanisms can actually operate in the absence of federalism as a comprehensive system of governance.
One key test of Western concepts is whether they can explain some of the Russian paradoxes, such as the radicalization in Bashkortostan after the change of its ruling elite or the variety of protest movements across Russia. Perhaps some theories, like the principal–agent approach applied by Andrey Starodubtsev at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, provide better explanations of center–periphery relations in Russia.
Overall, it seems that experts are increasingly reluctant to parallel their country with the West. The Russian state itself is increasingly interested in communicating with its Eastern neighbors. Perhaps, one of the best proofs for this trend is the budget of the APEC Summit (to be held in Vladivostok), which is $20 billion, a sum equivalent to the entire Russian budget in 1999. Russia might have enough money to host such an important event, but constructive models are still elusive while stumbling blocks are not.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.